”Some people think I’m the Native American Barbie,” says Irene Bedard, the speaking voice of Disney’s Pocahontas. Let the animated actress with the megawatt smile speak her own mind, however, and that sort of misconception swiftly vanishes. ”Then people know I’m not just doing this because I want to see my face all over the place.”
Despite the camouflage of her famous cartoon role, Bedard, 28, is currently our most visible Native American actress. It’s a blessing and a curse, for while Bedard cherishes her heritage, she is just as eager to play Cleopatra or Medea — roles that traditionally go to Anglos. ”American Indian actors are pretty much typecast,” observes Dan Sackheim, director of the upcoming telefilm Grand Avenue, which stars Bedard. ”If anyone stands a chance of breaking from that mold, Irene does. She has a certain level of grace and simplicity in her acting, a quality that leaps off the screen.”
Still, ”I am pegged,” she admits of her roles thus far, including the 1994 TNT movie Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee(for which she received a Golden Globe nomination), the feature film Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale, and in the coming weeks, TNT’s Crazy Horse and HBO’s Grand Avenue, a drama about three Native American families struggling to find their place in contemporary Northern California. Bedard’s next role? Hiawatha in The Song of Hiawatha.
The daughter of Inupiat Eskimo and Cree-French Canadian parents based in Anchorage, Bedard grew up learning her ancestors’ legends but also performing Yellow Submarine with friends on her front lawn. She began studying philosophy and physics at a small Pennsylvania college but switched to drama when she transferred to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Upon graduation, however, roles proved elusive, and Bedard got down to paying dues. ”I’ve worked in oil fields handling industrial trash,” says Bedard. ”I’ve worked as a baker, a waiter, a bartender, a librarian, and on a honey farm in Hawaii. All the things I’ve gone through made me realize that I can do pretty much everything.”
Everything, perhaps, except grasp how far she’s come. Appearing amid 100,000 people in New York City’s Central Park for the Pocahontas premiere boggled her mind. Even more intimidating was the Lakota Woman billboard in Los Angeles. ”My husband [musician Denny Wilson] drove up and was like, ‘We gotta take your picture in front of it!’ ” Bedard recalls. ”I started shaking, going ‘I don’t want my face up there!’ ” Get used to it, Irene.